Velcade, an oncology agent developed by Millennium Pharmaceuticals (recently acquired by Japan’s Takeda) and marketed by Johnson & Johnson, could be an effective treatment for lupus, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany have been studying Velcade (bortezomib), which is currently indicated for the treatment of patients with multiple myeloma and mantle cell lymphoma, as a treatment for systemic lupus erythematosus. The results were reported in the latest issue of the Nature Medicine journal.

The researchers conducted tests on mice showed that bortezomib, a proteasome inhibitor, efficiently eliminated the plasma cells in the animals, leading to a drastic decrease in autoantibodies and prolonged survival. Interestingly, the drug had no effect on other cells, noted lead author Reinhard Voll.

Dr Voll said that "proteasome inhibitors may be beneficial in refractory human diseases caused predominantly by autoantibodies," and they can selectively deplete plasma cells, which are resistant to current treatments. The researchers added that further clinical studies should be initiated.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease characterised by inflammation of the joints, skin, major organs and central nervous system. It has been more than 30 years since a new drug has been approved for lupus and all attempts to develop a successful treatment have failed. Most recently, Genentech and Biogen Idec announced disappointing data on their oncology blockbuster Rituxan (rituximab) as a treatment for lupus.